‘Unacceptable’ waits as 999 service stays in special measures

Tom Abell has officially taken up his post as chief executive of the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust (EEAST). 

Tom Abell has officially taken up his post as chief executive of the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust (EEAST). - Credit: East of England Ambulance Service

Ambulance delays - which have seen at least one patient wait for more than 24 hours - have been highlighted in a concerning report into the local trust.

The East of England Ambulance Service has been rated as 'requiring improvement' following an inspection by the Care Quality Commission, meaning it will stay in special measures for a third year.

The report found that some patients were forced to wait longer than 12 hours before an ambulance arrived - including one who waited more than a day to be collected.

It also highlighted continued troubles with bullying and harassment at the trust and chronic staff shortages. 

Tom Abell, chief executive of EEAST.

Tom Abell, chief executive of EEAST. - Credit: Aaron McMillan

The inspection was the first since the service was placed in special measures in 2020. 

This means it receives an additional level of support, with NHS bosses brought in to help it improve.

The report exposed a number of shortcomings. However, it also found some areas of improvement and chief executive Tom Abell said the trust had taken "a step in the right direction".

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"I am pleased to see that some of the really serious issues highlighted have been addressed, although we do have a lot more work to do," he said.

"We need to do a lot more about how we improve response times and we are already taking steps to do that. We have already got 50 new ambulances on the road and are bringing in 500 new clinicians."

The report showed that during the period of the inspection, in March 2022, a quarter of the most severe callouts were not dealt within the target of 15 minutes.

These are incidents in which patients are in immediately life-threatening positions - such as being in cardiac arrest.

Inspectors also found that four out of five people calling with non-urgent needs were left to wait more than three hours for an ambulance.

Fourteen ambulances were queued outside the NNUH on Sunday, with another two said to be waiting in t

Fourteen ambulances were queued outside the NNUH on Sunday, with another two said to be waiting in the resuscitation bays. Photo: Submitted - Credit: Archant

The report described that these waiting times were "unacceptable" and were exacerbated by high vacancy rates and growing levels of staff sickness.

It added that on more than 100 occasions between October and April patients were left so long that their conditions worsened while they were waiting.

Mr Abell added: "I am incredibly sorry to anybody who has had to wait too long for an ambulance when they needed one."

The trust was placed into special measures by the CQC in 2020 amid concerns over bullying and harassment, inappropriate sexualised behaviour and grievances not being addressed.

The commission said that while some improvements had been made to address these concerns, the Trust had not yet done enough.

Zoe Robinson, from the CQC, said: "While there have been improvements at EEAST, there is still work to be done.

"Staff shortages remained and patient waiting times were unacceptable.

"These issues increased the risk to which people were exposed.

"We also found staff didn't always feel respected, supported or valued. More work is needed to develop staff, enable them to innovate and bring about positive change within the service.

"However the trust is working towards promoting an open culture, where staff could raise issues or give feedback without fear of any comeback."

The report also highlighted "a culture of uncertainty" at the trust, due to frequent changes in its leadership team.

Alex Stewart, chief executive of Healthwatch Norfolk, welcomed the improvements identified but agreed that more work needed to be done.

Alex Stewart, chief executive of Healthwatch Norfolk

Alex Stewart, chief executive of Healthwatch Norfolk - Credit: Richard Jarmy Photography

He said: "There are still issues around patient waiting times and how long ambulances are taking to reach people.

"Equally, we would be concerned if patients who were suffering serious illness of injury were put off calling for help because of their concerns about waiting times.

"The report is not all negative and does contain some praise around the treatment of patients and support to their loved ones.

"Ambulance trust staff are also working extremely hard at the sharp end of patient care and we are pleased to see that it has been recognised by the inspection team."

12-hour wait

Sara Grodentz has raised concerns about ambulance waiting times

Sara Grodentz, from Buxton, has raised concerns about waiting times for ambulances after her mum waited nine-and-a-half-hours after falling ill at home. - Credit: Sara Grodentz

When her mother fell ill at her Horstead home in August 2021, Sara Grodentz immediately phone for an ambulance.

Ms Grodentz, of Buxton, said her mother had become ill at around 4pm in the afternoon - but an ambulance did not arrive until 4am in the morning.

It emerged that her mother was suffering with sepsis, for which she was thankfully able to recover.

But Ms Grodentz said: "I felt the whole thing was unbelievably shocking. The ambulance crew that did eventually come were lovely, but one of them was not fully trained so that was concerning.

"It is worrying to hear that the same things are still happening.

"I personally think it is down to a lack of proper investment from the government in the health service. 

"There desperately needs to be more investment in the health service as a whole."

'Senior leadership needs to improve'

Nick Lee, pictured with his mother Annie Offer

Nick Lee, with sister Sarah - Credit: The Lee Family

In December 2021, Nick Lee, a senior paramedic at the trust took his own life having recently been promoted to leading operations manager for the west of Norfolk.

His sister, Sarah Lee - who has read the new report - said she felt as though he did not receive ample mental health support while working for the trust.

She said: "When Nick died there was nothing really in place to help him talk about how he was feeling and six months down the line it just looks like nothing has really changed.

"It is the same things that come up again and again.

"I know how time-consuming appraisals are but they are how you measure how your staff members are feeling.

"The front line staff members themselves treat their patients with compassion and dignity - the senior leaders need to sort themselves and do the same thing for their staff."